Pathways To Quality In Higher Education

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Pathways To Quality In Higher Education
 

By

 

Levi Obijiofor

 

 

culled from Guardian, July 1, 2005

When the rector of the Delta State Polytechnic, Ozoro, mentioned more than a month ago that his institution would trial a new system of evaluating academic staff, he was promptly shot down by newspaper editorial comments and opinion articles riddled with simplistic literary arguments most of which were pedantic and flawed. Part of the suggested evaluation mechanism would involve students' assessment of academic staff performance and assessment of heads of departments by academic staff members. In Nigeria's education system, where transparency and accountability are as rare as a gold ingot, it is easy to understand the extent of opposition to this innovative proposal.

What we have experienced over the past decades is that Nigerian universities and polytechnics that are afraid of change have consistently engaged in the manufacture of superlative arguments to justify their preference for the status quo. But, you see, the world is changing and Nigeria cannot remain behind the rest of the world.

For the sake of quality of higher education, for the sake of the intellectual growth of Nigeria's university and polytechnic students, tertiary education institutions in the country cannot and must not continue to justify this business-as-usual attitude. That kind of attitude is retrogressive. It imperils the quality of tertiary education. It cripples innovation in teaching and research. It forces academic and research staff to be redundant and unaccountable. Above all, it would make Nigerian universities and polytechnics less competitive than their overseas counterparts.

In most universities in the western world, annual appraisal of academic and research staff is one of the strategies used to identify and reward high achieving staff members. It is also used to sustain quality and high standards in tertiary education. When academic or research staff members are appointed, they undergo an orientation session in which they are informed (among other things) about the procedures for performance appraisals, including regulations and criteria for promotion or yearly salary increment or qualification for special studies program. The new staff member understands from the first day at work that his or her ability to be rewarded by the system, as well as his or her ability to rise within the system is dependent on his or her ability to meet the established criteria for promotion or salary increment.

Nigerian universities do not like introduction of radical changes, particularly changes that would improve standards but which would also expose weaknesses in the system. Academic staff members who have operated unchecked like lords over the years do not like a system of performance appraisal that would require them to demonstrate on a yearly basis evidence of innovativeness in teaching. They would not endorse a system that would require them to account regularly for their research achievements.

Those academic and research staff members who are comfortable with the status quo would disapprove of a system that would allow students to evaluate their teaching practices and course contents on a regular basis. They would not tolerate also a framework that would require them to produce evidence of successful competitive research grant applications, as well as publication track record evidenced by the number of articles published in international peer-reviewed journals.

 

What distinguishes leading western universities from their Nigerian counterparts (in this particular context) is that in Nigeria, there are hardly any established procedures for performance appraisal of staff members. In many universities in the western world, there is at least a system of evaluation of staff performance. And there are standards for determining significant achievements by each staff member. These are lacking in most Nigerian tertiary education institutions. And this is why any suggestion to introduce measurable standards for performance evaluation in Nigerian universities is always viewed as unnecessary and culturally inappropriate.

We must pity academic and research staff of Nigerian universities and polytechnics who have to go through an insufferable process of performance appraisal in an environment in which basic procedures and criteria for promotion or salary increments are obscure or incomprehensible. In most cases, there are few (if any) transparent, measurable and fair procedures for performance evaluation of academic and research staff in these universities and polytechnics.

Absence of verifiable and measurable performance benchmark makes it very difficult for victimised academic staff members to launch successful appeals against their bosses. In a derisive manner, it would seem the existing system was designed to recognise and promote mediocrity rather than merit. How does a hardworking academic staff member, for example, successfully appeal against a vengeful boss who is determined to stunt his/her professional development within a university system where there are no clear guidelines for performance evaluation? Engaging in such an exercise in Nigeria is as futile as hitting one's head against a brick wall.

There are other areas where academic and research staff members in many western universities are required to demonstrate that they have made significant contributions in order to justify their application for promotion. These areas include evidence of external recognition of teaching, supervision of higher degree course work and research students, services rendered within departments, the university and to the general public, as well as staff development activities carried out by the staff member. In this context, when some academic and research staff of Nigerian universities engage in loose talk about being overworked and underpaid, it seems to me they are not aware of the workload and academic commitments of their colleagues in other parts of the world.

Academic and research staff of some overseas universities might be earning dollars or other foreign currencies but there are mechanisms in the system to ensure that every dollar they earn is justified. I'm not sure there is a mechanism in Nigerian universities and polytechnics to check against the existence of freeloaders. Academic and research staff of Nigerian universities and polytechnics should take a moment to reflect on the benchmarks for the yearly appraisal of their overseas colleagues. One area that might be considered however is that the enabling environment for effective teaching and learning and research is simply non-existent in Nigerian tertiary education institutions.

Performance appraisal based on the criteria discussed in the preceding paragraphs is highly recommended for Nigerian universities and polytechnics. But the universities and polytechnics must be provided with the basic facilities for teaching and research. This is crucial. While one is not arguing for a wholesale adoption of the system operating in foreign universities (because of the obvious gap in the availability of infrastructure), there are aspects of that system that are irrefutably useful to our national needs, aspirations and circumstances. The system has more advantages than drawbacks. It would keep academic staff members -- particularly those who currently use official hours to engage in marketing of all sorts of wares -- perpetually active and engaged in the areas of teaching, research, publications and service activities. The system recognises and promotes commitment to hard work. It will cut down redundant practices and entrench innovativeness. It does not grant university and polytechnic teachers the liberty to dump down on their students those course contents that are dated and irrelevant, especially as the students are given the opportunity to evaluate their lecturers' teaching practices and the quality of each course at the end of each semester.

Applications for research grants should be assessed on a range of criteria, including originality and innovativeness of the proposal, as well as the quality and strength of the proposed research plans, methods and techniques. Universities and polytechnics must get rid of the prevailing practice of awarding research grants to staff members who hail from the same ethnic background as the head of department or indeed the chairperson of the faculty research committee. Ethnic affiliation should never take precedence over quality of research application and merit. Ethnic attachment does not promote a culture of research. If anything, it undermines research excellence.

Time is long overdue for university vice-chancellors, rectors of polytechnics, federal education ministry officials and the Nigerian public to engage in serious discussion about the pedagogy of university and polytechnic education in Nigeria.

 

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